More than a year after state lawmakers told it to stop incarcerating so many teenagers, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has diverted 52 juvenile offenders to local programs for help and rehabilitation instead of shipping them to state lockups.

Keeping the youths closer to home — and near relatives who might be able to help them — reflects the first phase of a legislatively ordered effort to divert increasing numbers of youths from the system's harshest punishment.

Senate Bill 1630, passed in 2015, ordered the agency to figure out ways to keep and treat young offenders closer to home. The agency must divert at least 30 juveniles from state lockups during fiscal year 2016 and another 150 the following year. 

The bill was largely prompted by counties that were sending young offenders to state lockups — in many cases hundreds of miles from home — because they lacked resources and programs to help them. The juvenile justice system is about rehabilitation, said state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, co-sponsor of the legislation and lawyer for juveniles. Breaking familial ties is punitive and counterproductive, he said.

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"These are mostly low-income families who have to take a bus to go see them, and there's no bus that goes out that far. You're potentially cutting them off from friends and family, and from a developmental standpoint, having a strong family structure is one of the things that will help kids be rehabilitated," Wu said. "If you don't believe that there's anyone that's out there that looks after you, who wants you, who cares for you, then what are you fighting for?"

The agency's plan focuses first on diverting the youngest offenders — some ages 10 to 12 — those with serious mental illnesses, developmental disabilities, non-violent histories and a "low to moderate" risk of offending again. A task force including juvenile justice agency officials, child advocates, probation officers, prosecutors and judges developed the plan.

"Certain youth may best be served outside a restrictive correctional setting. Young children have developmental needs that differ from older adolescents and respond best to curriculum designed with these needs in mind, delivered by staff that have specialized training, along with same-aged peers," the plan states. "Similarly, youth with complex mental health needs and developmental or intellectual disabilities may benefit most from treatment in a setting that can best accommodate their unique needs."

Juvenile court judges have the final say in authorizing diversion, and as of Friday the agency had approved 52 out of 106 applications for regional diversion. Thirty-five offenders have been cleared and placed closer to home, while the rest await approval from judges in their respective counties.

More than 80 percent of Texas counties are "mental health professional shortage areas," officials say, and almost 70 percent are classified as rural, the type of areas that historically have lacked mental health professionals for both children and adults.

Some counties also have reported not having the resources for specialized treatment of problems like aggression, anger management, substance abuse and sexual abuse. Overall, the plan notes, a vast majority of the state lacks the crucial resources needed to rehabilitate juveniles.

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In the past, lack of resources left a state facility as the only option for some youths, said David Reilly, the agency's executive director.

"Over the years, a lot of these kids, especially from small counties, would get committed only to have those services," he said. Now, Reilly said, the agency will move toward using state lockups a place for juveniles with "challenges that can't be met anywhere else."

Closer to home, within seven regions the agency has designated, juvenile probation departments will share resources so that each county won't feel the burden of providing all types of treatment. For fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the seven regions will receive up to $875,000 — $125,000 per region — each year for start-up funds. 

The state agency also will fund more than $400,000 for 2016 to regions for individualized alternative programs for diverted juveniles for 2016. The following year, that funding will increase to $9 million.

"We want to add to their tool chest through this program," Reilly said.

Read more stories about the Texas juvenile justice system:

  • Keeping Preteens Out of Juvenile System – Already facing calls to limit when teenagers are treated as adults in the criminal justice system, Texas lawmakers next year may also see legislation trying to keep preteens from being shunted into the juvenile justice system.
  • Juvenile Justice Agency Making Case to Escape Budget Cuts – If state leaders insist, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has identified ways to cut its budget by $16.8 million, or 2.8 percent, for the 2018-2019 biennium. But the agency really wants a $170 million bump so it can comply with state and federal laws, fix up some of its battered facilities and bolster behavioral programs.
  • Juvenile Offenders Find Rehabilitation Through Work – Texas juvenile justice officials think they might have found a solution to some of their incarcerated youths' behavior problems: putting them to work. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has developed a pilot program to place young offenders in jobs if they have already earned a high school diploma or GED. Normally, youths have to keep up a 16-hour day that includes going to classes even if they have completed their required education.
  • Offenders Return to State School With Thanks – Former youth talk about how Giddings State School helped give their lives a 180-degree turn. Many had the same problems growing up: no respect for authority, an inability to communicate civilly and an indifference to what could happen to them along the way.

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